Kristen Hege, Celgene

Kristen Hege
Complacency is not an option

Company: Celgene
Title: VP of Translational Development, Hematology/Oncology

For Dr. Kristen Hege, Celgene's ($CELG) San Francisco site lead, the decision to enter the field of biotech and medicine was born of her familial history and a passion for drug discovery. Throughout her career, that passion--in addition to her optimism--has allowed her to navigate the field successfully in spite of challenges along the way.

Hege lost her parents--both physicians--by the age of 20, and her brother in the 1990s AIDS epidemic. The loss of her parents--she thinks of her mother as a "pioneer" in her field--taught Hege to be pragmatic and have a "deep appreciation for good health." Later in life, she served as her brother's primary caregiver until his death just one year before effective AIDS meds hit the market.

"That had significant impact on me and how much time matters when you are talking about new drug development," she told FierceBiotech. "The difference of a year or two in delivery of these significant new drugs to the patient really does matter. Complacency is not an option in this world when there are these real lives that are cut short because they happen to not have a drug approved at that moment in time."

Hege completed her MD at the University of California, San Francisco, and her residency in internal medicine at Brigham & Women's Hospital, afterward returning to the Bay Area for her fellowship in hematology and oncology at UCSF. It was during the '90s, though, that she began to notice a lot of innovation in the biotech sector.

After talking about her interests with her program's visiting doctor, Stephen Sherwin, the two agreed "basically on a handshake" that she could complete her two years of fellowship research at Sherwin's biotech, Cell Genesys, Hege explained, a move that would end up sparking her fascination with the industry side of things. Six months after returning to UCSF for the academic career she'd always imagined, she had an epiphany, realizing she was more excited about the company's technology. It wasn't long before she ended up at the company where she'd spend 14 years, though she never gave up her UCSF appointment.

Fast-forward to 2008, and Cell Genesys had "bet the bank" on a Phase III cancer vaccine trial that failed during the beginning of the economic downturn, rendering the company unable to raise any money. The outfit had to close up shop and Hege was faced with a new challenge.

"There I was the first time I had been out of a job," she said. "My life had been fairly structured up until then, and suddenly anything was possible."

In short time, Hege returned to the field to become the acting chief medical officer at three small biotech startups, quickly getting a crash course on an array of cancer approaches, she said. It wasn't long, though, before a friend called her in 2010 and told her about Celgene's intentions to open a San Francisco operation focused on early, translational development for hematology/oncology indications, recommending that she get over her loyalty to the other companies because she'd be a good fit to head the operation.

"What drove me to take it was that it really felt like the right opportunity," she said. "It was based here in SF in the heart of the UCSF campus, I have a UCSF staff faculty appointment so it was a nice physical marriage between my two roles. It was an area of oncology that I was drawn to--early translational Phase I novel drug development--and they were supportive (of my UCSF role)."

Since taking the position, Hege has said she's proud to bring the "biotech attitude" of being able to "do things faster and more efficiently than is often done in large companies with complex organizational structures." For this interview, Celgene's EVP of research and early development, Thomas Daniel, told Hege that she brings a "deep, deep commitment," "high energy," and a "can-do attitude that's infectious" to her position.

However, in keeping her USCF appointment throughout her industry career--a situation she's learning is somewhat rare with her peers--she said that the relationships she developed there and the patient care aspect of that role are some of the most rewarding facets of her career.

"I have a couple of patients that I literally picked up before I had children, and my children are now in college. So I have taken care of a few of these patients (all this time) who are lucky enough to have diseases for which they are still alive."

Now, she says, one of her biggest fans and closest friends is a 99-year-old patient who, like her, has faced hardships but brings herself into the clinic each time with Uber, and always "with a spring in her step."

"Those kind of relationships are what patient care is all about," Hege said. -- Eric Sagonowsky (email)

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Kristen Hege, Celgene